In Universes

in universes

The following is from Emet North’s In Universes. North has lived in a dozen states over the past decade and has no fixed residence. In previous lives, they worked in an observational cosmology lab on a grant from NASA, taught snowboarding in Montana, researched Lie algebras, led wine tastings, waited tables, trained horses, and wrote a thesis on the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. They translate from Spanish to English with a particular focus on queer and trans voices.

The summer of the octopus—the same summer Raffi’s aunt is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, and a hurricane floods Raffi’s bubbe and zeyde’s house, drowning their photographs of parents and siblings killed in the camps, and the news is filled with stories of two dead women found inside a Utah hotel’s water cistern—Raffi has a sudden desire to be submerged. They’ve never liked baths, always too aware of all the feet and dead skin cells and pubic hairs that have passed across the bath’s porcelain floor, but this summer they don’t care anymore. Or maybe that’s not quite right, because they still shudder as they lower their body into the water, but they lower it anyway, that strange it of their body, desire overpowering revulsion. When the water—a degree or two colder than their blood—closes over their head, they feel a strange sense of communion, as though the borders of their body are giving way. They wish they could explain to their grandparents, distraught over the loss of their photographs, that it isn’t such a bad thing to be drowned.

When Raffi first notices the octopus, Kay is lying on their emerald velvet chaise with her feet in Raffi’s lap. It is summertime—all bad things happen in the summer—and Kay is wearing a silk slip and nothing else. Their third-floor walkup has no air-conditioning and the climate is breaking and the apartment is staggeringly, astonishingly hot. Kay glistens with sweat. She looks like a work of art, like Millais’s Ophelia or some other half-drowned woman. She looks, Raffi realizes, quite pregnant.

Raffi stops rubbing their wife’s feet. They try to remember what Kay looked like yesterday or last month, but when they close their eyes all they see is their own paintings: Kay fractured and refracted across universes, a multitude of Kays, Raffi’s imagination so vivid that their process sometimes feels closer to recollection than invention. They open their eyes to the silhouette of their wife’s new curves, the shadow of her nipple visible through the silk, her hands rested atop the rise of her stomach.

“I thought we said we weren’t going to have children,” Raffi said.

“I wondered when you’d notice,” Kay says. “Don’t worry. It’s not a child, it’s an octopus.” She says it in the same steady tone she uses to soothe Raffi’s fears when they wake from nightmares where Kay has been murdered or mauled or died of cancer. Don’t worry, she says, here I am, not even a little dead.

Raffi’s fears do not feel soothed. “But octopi are as smart as children. And they have so many more legs.”

“Only eight.” Their wife smiles, and it feels like an invitation. But Raffi doesn’t know how to accept. Their own octopus-less stomach clenches.

When Raffi is beneath the water, nothing is allowed to change. The octopus inside Kay stops growing, their aunt’s cancer stops proliferating, the ice caps stop melting—all of it pauses. And the other things too, the ones Raffi doesn’t know about yet, all the damage this summer and the ones to come will inflict on them and everyone else, all the damage they will do to the people they love and the people they love will do to them. All of it holds its breath in the silence below the surface of the water.

Raffi tries not to look below their wife’s lovely clavicles. They try not to look at their wife’s side of the studio, the half-formed tree, cracks filled with pale-green resin, carving knife perched haphazardly on the table like it might be picked up at any moment. They try to avoid thinking the word octopus, which works as well as these things always do, which is not at all. Octopus-octopi-octopode, octopus-octopi-octopode, their brain chirrups.

Raffi sits on their own side of the studio, pins a fresh piece of heavy, hot-pressed paper to a board, and takes out their watercolor palette. It’s an unforgiving medium—unlike oil or acrylic, which are opaque, allowing you to paint over mistakes, watercolors are translucent. Every brush stroke leaves its trace on the final painting. The series Raffi is working on is called Deformations. Like all of Raffi’s work, the paintings feature Kay. Or more accurately, they feature a multitude of Kays. The paintings are layered, and each layer is a different imagined life, one slightly deformed Kay atop the next. If Raffi plans the layers ahead of time, the paintings come out stilted, muddy. They have to let each image come to them, however long it might take. In the piece they finished yesterday, the one they’ve been referring to as work-wife, Kay is bent over a workbench. In one layer, she’s applying gold leaf to a fatal wound, in the next, sculpting the tree Raffi can see across the studio. She’s butchering a sheep. Building a table. Swaddling a baby. The layers cohere so that from a distance, they look like a single outline. But in other paintings, the versions of Kay stretch and warp away from one another—Kay as a murder of crows atop Kay as a mountain lion atop Kay as a pair of twin ghosts—so the overall effect is entropic.

On the blank page, Raffi begins to draw Kay’s outline. They are trying something new: instead of moving across lives, they want to move across time, overlay all the versions of Kay they’ve ever known until they have a map to show them how they’ve arrived at the present moment. They try to sketch Kay as she was at twenty, when the two of them first met. Raffi, a broke art student, living in a house with most of a men’s intramural rugby team and Kay dating one of the boys. What Raffi remembers most about their first encounter was how they couldn’t stop watching Kay—the way she pulled her hair back into a ponytail, how she’d half close her eyes when she smiled, the small skip in her step. Raffi, who had spent their life feeling both observed and inadequate, had become the observer. They try to put all these recollections into their drawing, but in every sketch, the octopus bulges beneath the surface.

When Raffi leaves the studio, they find their wife lying on the chaise again, fanning herself with one of Raffi’s sketchbooks. “How come you’re not working?” they ask.

“I’m not in the mood,” she says.

Octopus-octopi-octopode. “How could you make this decision without me? What about marriage meaning that we’re a team?” It had been Kay who wanted to marry, Kay who’d wanted the stability marriage implied.

“It wasn’t a decision.” Kay’s voice lingers on the border between earnest and defensive. “It was more a gradual coming to terms with something that’s always been present.”

“You’ve always had an octopus inside you?”

“Maybe in some form or other. Remember that trip we took to Flathead Lake the summer between sixth and seventh grade?”

“I didn’t know you then,” Raffi says.

“Oh,” Kay says, shaking her head. “Right. I was with my best friend Norah. Her family was rich, or they seemed that way to me then, and they rented a place with one of those outdoor showers, the kind with a floor like a boardwalk. I had my first bikini, red with white polka dots. I felt so grown up. Norah and I locked ourselves in that shower after swimming and stripped down to our jelly sandals and danced around under the water. I remember feeling something wriggling inside of me.”

Raffi thinks of lying nose to nose with Britt in her bed. Of Britt’s arms around them on Calypso’s back. Of the shiver that had moved through them at her touch. Is it possible that this is what Kay is describing? “Are you saying you have an octopus inside you because you’re queer?”

Kay lets out a disappointed huff of air. “No,” she says, “not at all. Were you even listening?”

Raffi is failing their wife by not understanding and their wife is failing them by not making herself understood. Their entire relationship was one of looking and being looked at, seeing and being seen. When did the two acts come to feel so different?

Next to Kay and Raffi’s claw-foot tub, a mirror with an elaborate gilt frame and a crack creeping across the bottom left corner leans against the wall. Kay rescued it from a sidewalk in Alphabet City, but Raffi avoids its gaze. They have never liked looking at their own reflection. But lying in the bath, they want to see themself. The mirror is tall and narrow and they rest it over the top of the tub like an imperfect lid. Under the water, they open their eyes and their own distorted reflection stares back at them, light leaking in around the edges.


Raffi avoids their wife, which is made easier by her continued absence from the studio. It’s not that they don’t want to be near her, but they don’t know how to be near in the way she seems to want. At night, Kay goes to bed hours earlier than normal, so Raffi doesn’t have to decide whether to avoid their nighttime ritual: a lit candle, soft music, mugs of lavender-lemon tea to help Raffi sleep, something they’ve never been good at. The first night, Raffi makes themself tea, but they feel so sad sitting on the love seat alone that they gulp a mouthful before it cools and scald their tongue. They pour it out and go back to the studio.

After that, they give up on tea and sleep, spend their nights staying up late doing graphic design work for an ad campaign. Without meaning to, they keep adding tentacles to things like soda cans or televisions. On the other side of the studio, the unfinished tree seems to be wilting. They work until they have erased so many tentacles that their paper tears, and then they give up and go to bed. Their wife doesn’t stir when Raffi slips into the bedroom, but the octopus does, undulating their wife’s skin in a way that makes Raffi’s own skin prickle. They sleep as close to the edge of the bed as they can, back to their wife.

If only Raffi had gotten into the bath earlier, stopped the flow of time sooner, maybe the octopus would never have squirmed its way into existence and they wouldn’t need to be in the bath at all. But wasn’t marriage itself a long bath? That’s what Kay had told them, more or less, when they’d asked why she wanted to marry. That she wanted a steady surface to sink beneath when the world around them grew chaotic or cold. That their relationship could be warm water to ease the things in life that ached. They think of all the bad summers they’ve survived under their marriage’s steady surface: the strange numbness that overtook Raffi’s body one summer; the horrible day in June when their best friend got mauled by a bear, the months of caring for him afterward, the nightmares where they’d been too slow with their shouted warnings. When Kay holds Raffi’s gaze, the whole world goes quiet. Even the word wife a kind of reassurance.

After a week, Raffi walks into the studio to find their wife sitting in her normal spot, staring at the half-finished tree. They feel a leaping kind of joy. They will go over and kiss the top of her head, like they have so many mornings. They will bring her coffee milky with cream and hand it over saying, happy wife happy life, and they will return to the small, silly rituals that together form a relationship. But Kay doesn’t look at Raffi when they walk over, not even when they’re standing beside her, and the space between them solidifies so it’s impossible for Raffi to go any closer. They turn and slink out of the studio.

Raffi is the one on the chaise this time, heavy with sleepless nights. When their wife sits down on the end of it, Raffi startles back to wakefulness, and for a moment they forget the octopus, forget the fact they’ve barely spoken with their wife in a week, and they smile up at her—their beautiful wife, their favorite person—and she hesitates before smiling back, a deep dimple appearing in her right cheek.

Octopus-octopi-octopode, Raffi’s brain says, and they stop smiling, watch the change mirrored on their wife’s face, feel a kick of guilt. They shift their focus to lines and shadows the way they do when they’re painting. To see as an artist is to forget meaning, abandon memory. Their wife’s face is a crescent of darkness and a circle of sun. Delicate, curved contours in smooth surfaces. It is entirely unique; it has nothing to do with the person Raffi knows and loves. “I’ve never held it against you when you can’t work,” their wife says, snapping back into familiarity. She is talking about the heavy days, the times when it is impossible for Raffi to get out of bed let alone make art. The days that Raffi has worked—for Kay—so hard to avoid, becoming disciplined about boring things like sleep and exercise and therapy.

“It isn’t about working,” they say. “If you want to take a break, fine. I already told you I’d do more graphic design.”

“I moved to New York with you. Even though everything here costs a million dollars and the people are mean and it takes me three fucking planes to see my mom. Even though it’s hotter than hell and we don’t even have air-conditioning because you want us to save the planet by which you actually mean we can’t afford the electric bill.” Kay is breathing hard, her voice rising. Has she been carrying around a list of resentments this entire time? Raffi thinks calm calm calm, pulls the soft parts of themself inward.

“You were the one who said we should move. Who insisted.” “Because I wanted what was best for you.”

“If you hate it here, fine. I hate it too. Let’s leave.” Raffi will prove to Kay how little they desire her sacrifices, if that’s what this life is to her. They will clear their shared world with the swipe of an arm across a desk.

“Are you upset because I’m changing or because you can’t?” Kay asks. The words resound inside of Raffi, their body become an echo chamber.

Raffi holds their breath underwater and looks up at themself in the mirror. They try to imagine how Kay sees them. What they look like to her with their brow furrowed, squinting at a canvas or sketchbook. What they look like laughing at her jokes or contorted with pleasure during sex. What they look like sleeping beside her. They come up for air, and it is like they are coming in for a kiss.

Raffi flinches when Kay walks into the studio. They’re sitting on the floor, back against the wall. They are trying to name shades of blue: Prussian, cerulean, phthalo, ultramarine, cobalt, indigo. Can they count Payne’s gray? Kay sits down next to them and holds out her carving knife. Raffi takes it, confused. “If you want the octopus gone, you can cut her out.” She offers up her arm. It’s not quite steady. Raffi stares at it, the subterranean rivers of veins— erulean blue. They don’t know if this is a real offer. They don’t know if it means some part of their wife wants to return to sunny days in the studio, lavender-lemon tea, sleeping with their bodies tangled, or if it’s another sacrifice their wife would make and resent them for, or if it’s a test. They don’t know what the after of an octopus would look like, how it would be possible to remove it without hurting Kay.

“That’s not where the octopus is,” they say, instead of doing anything. They mean it to be a statement, but it lifts itself into a question.

“It’s where her tentacles are.”

It makes sense, Raffi thinks, that there wouldn’t be room for all of them in Kay’s stomach or uterus or wherever it is the octopus lives. Octopi have so many legs. Raffi loops their fingers loosely around their wife’s wrist, acutely aware of the points where their fingers touch her skin. They lift her arm up to their face. It smells of vanilla from her lotion, and talc from the powder she dusts her body with, and seaweed from the octopus. The skin is puckered into small divots where the suckers must be.

“Is it painful?” they ask.

“No,” their wife says. “It’s like being embraced, but from the inside.”

“I’m scared the octopus will hurt you.” They think of the tumor growing in their aunt’s lungs, of all the ways a body can betray itself.

“I feel good,” Kay says. “I feel strong.”

They let go of her arm, put down the knife. They don’t want to cut the octopus out. They want the octopus never to have existed at all.

Raffi starts locking the bathroom door when they take their baths. They don’t know if they are afraid that Kay would try to join them or if they’re afraid she wouldn’t. They lie flat enough that there is room for an imaginary version of Kay to lie on top of them, also beneath the surface—of the water, of the mirror—knees and breasts and bellies squashed together, the octopus imaginary too. Raffi talks to their imaginary wife. It doesn’t matter what they say: the words don’t make any sound beneath the water; Kay can hear whatever she needs to hear. But the words Raffi is saying are who are you who are you who.

Raffi understands that since their wife has offered to let them cut the octopus out, they are no longer allowed to be angry. To prove they aren’t angry, they decide to make Kay dinner. She has stopped cooking. Raffi assumes that this, like the lack of woodworking, is because of the octopus. They don’t ask about it because if they do, she might give them that look again, the one that means don’t you know me at all? They don’t ask because if they do, she might say that she has never liked cooking, that this, too, was a sacrifice she made for Raffi’s sake.

Raffi is a mediocre cook—they try to be the opposite of their mother in every way—but they do know how to make one good stew. They mince clove after clove of garlic, simmer onions until they’re translucent, dice jalapeños. They pour in billowing clouds of coconut milk and globs of peanut butter, slosh in half a can of crushed tomatoes.

They sweat and sweat. It is a terrible time for stew. Maybe Kay will laugh with them about this. And even if she doesn’t like the stew, Raffi has tried and is thus allowed to be mad again. The air is thick with heat and garlic, but still they can smell the octopus, the brine that lives in their apartment now. The carving knife glints on the counter. Raffi wipes at their eyes, but this is a mistake. The oil from the jalapeños lingers on their hands, lights their skin on fire.

Raffi yelps and their wife appears, but when she reaches a hand out, her skin is rippling. Raffi trips backward and lands hard on their tailbone on the kitchen f loor. Their whole body throbs.

“Let me help you,” Kay says, and she sounds so much like herself, the concern so familiar, that Raffi’s burning eyes water more. They don’t want their wife to touch them with her alien, rippling hand, but they want her to care for them again. They stay very still. Their wife gently tilts their head back and pours the rest of the canned tomatoes over their molten face. The tomatoes are slimy and cool and make soft squishing noises as they slide off Raffi’s cheeks onto the f loor. They ooze away the pain. Raffi’s vision blurs into amorphous blobs of red. Their wife wipes the tomato juice from their eyes, the pad of her thumb tracing the top of Raffi’s cheekbone. For a moment, it is just the two of them. Then their wife’s thumb suctions to Raffi’s cheek, and their reaction is visceral, they jerk away, their stomach heaves. Their wife pulls her thumb off with a slight popping noise, and Raffi scrambles backward until they hit the wall. They wrap their arms around themself, close their eyes.

“They’re just suckers,” Kay says, and Raffi can hear the hurt even with their eyes closed. By the time they open them again, they are alone in a puddle of tomato juice. They stand slowly, turn off the burner. Leave the stew bubbling its way to stillness in the pot.

The paradox of the bath is that even though it is unchanging, still eventually it is over. The mirror unlids the tub, the plug unstoppers, the solid body of water fractures and drains. Life resumes its normal pace, everything rushing fast as it can toward its own end. The long quiet months of winter cede to the commotion of spring. Raffi must pull their body, its boundaries and edges become porous after so much soaking, out of the water and back into the furious caress of the summer heat.

That night Raffi doesn’t stay up late. They sit on the chaise, googling octopus facts until the sun sets. When they walk into the bathroom, their wife is there too, and it is almost like a normal night. While Raffi brushes their teeth, they offer up the facts they’ve learned. “An octopus’s skin is like a giant tongue. They can taste with their whole body.” They speak through a mouthful of toothpaste foam that tastes like mint-coated algae.

“She likes the taste of vanilla best,” their wife says, sitting on the toilet and patting moisturizer into her skin. She seems unimpressed by Raffi’s new knowledge.

Raffi spits out the foam, trying not to gag.

“They have three hearts.”

“One for eros, one for philos, and one for agape.”

“How do you know that?” Raffi says. Kay has never been the type of person who cares about Greek classifications of love.

“She’s inside me,” their wife says, as though this should be obvious. “We know everything about each other.”

Raffi stares at their wife in the mirror. “Octopi don’t live long,” they say, frustration creeping its way back in.

Their wife doesn’t flinch. “They live long enough,” she says, voice indifferent as a stone wall, and walks out of the room.

Raffi stays in the bathroom, brushing their teeth over and over, trying to get the taste of brine out of their mouth. They brush until their gums are bleeding, but it’s still there, metallic now.

By the time they enter the bedroom, their wife is asleep. All the windows are open and two fans are running, but the air is hot and viscous. A bee is buzzing somewhere in the darkness. Kay’s body is dimpled with a thousand small indentations, the curve of her shoulder pockmarked into strangeness. An octopus has more than two thousand suckers. It wriggles beneath their wife’s skin. An octopus—unlike a wife—is nocturnal. Watching the way it pushes their wife’s skin up in thick, winding cords makes Raffi’s own skin feel too tight. Their heart thuds in their ears—or are they hearing the octopus’s three hearts?—and sweat trickles off their body and they are so itchy, their skin is so tight, that they dig their nails into it, scratch hard enough to leave welts. They climb out of bed, pace around the bedroom. Through the windows, sirens wail.

The carving knife is lying on Kay’s nightstand—why?—and they pick it up. It is solid in their hand, so deliciously cold that they press the f lat of the blade to their cheek, lean into it, and look up at the painting that hangs over their bed. Kay, reclining on the chaise, holding her hand up. There is a ring on her finger and an expression on her face that is somewhere between confusion and joy. Raffi painted it in secret, hung it on Kay’s side of the studio late one night. In the morning, Kay had looked at the painting, then at Raffi, then at the painting again. When she looked at Raffi a second time, they held out their hand, a ring resting in their palm.

They get back in bed. “Kay?” they say. They can’t stand it anymore, sitting here alone with the octopus. “Kay,” they say again, louder. Their wife makes a sound of annoyance, rolling away from them.

Raffi tells themself that their wife gave them permission that day in the living room. They tell themself they are only trying to understand, only trying to see the things that Kay wants them to see. They tell themself no one could be expected to live this way. They nudge their wife softly, but she keeps snoring, the daintiest chain saw. Raffi loves her and they hate her and they hardly know her in this moment. They understand what they are doing is a betrayal.

They press the blade of the carving knife gently into the flesh of their wife’s calf. The skin parts easily; it is like cutting a ripe peach. It feels horribly, perversely good to breach the barrier their wife has erected around herself and the octopus. A line of red wells up, and for an instant there is only this: a thin streak of their wife’s blood, dark and opalescent, quivering in the breeze from the fans. And then: something like a vein bulges beneath the skin, pushing up up up, until the tip of a tentacle noses its way out from between the lips of the cut. It sways back and forth, probing the air, covered in pulsing suckers. It looks like an alien; it looks like the calamari Raffi and their wife shared only a month ago, a celebration dinner, oil and lemon juice coating their hands. Raffi reaches out their finger and the tentacle grabs on to it with so many little mouths and it is like nothing Raffi has felt before.

The tentacle tugs at them, as though it wants to drag them down so that they too can live inside their wife’s body, a different sort of submersion. Raffi lets it pull them forward for a heartbeat, two. Then the tip of their finger touches their wife’s blood and they yank their hand back, recoiling from what their wife contains, from what they have done. The suckers pop off reluctantly. They stare at their finger, the angry marks the suckers left behind, the tip dipped in darkness. When they look up, the tentacle has retreated and Kay is looking at them.

“Oh Raffi,” she says, pity in her voice, and Raffi understands that the moment is irreversible. Not the one they’re in, but the one that is already over. All this time they have been wishing the octopus gone so they could have their wife back, the Kay they’ve known and loved. But now that it is too late, they understand that all along this was the wrong wish. That instead of wishing for a different Kay they should have been wishing for a different self.

They don’t want to understand it, though, so they run to the bathroom, come back, and kneel over Kay’s legs. It takes them three tries to tear the foil off the disinfectant wipe they pull from their little first aid kit. They press it as gently as they can to the wound they have made in their wife. Kay doesn’t flinch at the sting, just watches, her skin still for once. Raffi’s hands are shaking so hard they can barely spread a layer of antibiotic ointment over the cut. If only Kay will say something, then the two of them can talk and they have talked their way through so many hard things in the past. Raffi smooths down the edges of a Band-Aid. There’s nothing else for them to do with their hands then, so they force themself to meet their wife’s gaze. Tears drip silently off Raffi’s chin, and maybe those are tears in Kay’s eyes too, or maybe it’s light from the street making them glimmer. Apologies clump in their throat, blocking their airway, but they can’t figure out how to force them out into the silence, so they sit and stare at Kay’s beautiful face, feel the air from the fan cold as a knife on their cheeks. The moment stretches tauter and tauter until it seems like it might snap into anything. Kay half shrugs, half shakes her head. Then she pulls the sheet up over her body and rolls onto her side so that Raffi can no longer see her face.

Under the water, Raffi keeps their eyes open. The absence of air in their lungs aches like a penance. They’ve left the tub unlidded, the mirror in its corner, but they look down at their own body, pale and bony and unfamiliar. Under the water, their edges blur so that their boundaries become mutable, so that it is impossible to tell where they end and the water begins. Under the water nothing is allowed to change, not even them, but something is breaking the rules, rippling softly just beneath the surface of their skin.


From In Universes by Emet North. by Emet North. Copyright © 2024 by Emet North. Excerpted by permission of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

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